The course that's living on borrowed time
A nice drive, 8-iron from 127 yards to 10 feet and a putt that slipped in the side door. A birdie.
But not the regular sort – like we’ve all experienced dozens of times before.
There wasn’t the tingle of satisfaction, the little jolt of adrenaline you get when you write a 3 on the card. This was different.
The thought I couldn’t get out of my head I as picked the ball out of the cup was: “This is going to be someone’s living room.”
Royal Norwich’s Hellesdon course is living on borrowed time.
The club celebrate their 125th birthday in September but the layout they’ve played for all of that quasquicentennial – that produced the likes of three-time Walker Cup player Arthur Perowne – will soon be row after row of houses.
1,000 of them to be exact.
The club are packing up, moving 10 miles down the road to a brighter future that’s being created every time a shaper crafts a green, or bulldozes out a new bunker, at Weston Park.
But while there’s delight at what lies ahead, there’s also great sadness at what’s about to be lost.
“It’s a wrench,” admits general manager Phil Grice, who has been spearheading the plans to leave behind a course that’s had the hand of James Braid lain upon it.
“I have been a PGA member for nearly 30 years now and I am a golf geek. So losing somewhere like this, and being part of the reason it’s happened, doesn’t always sit totally easily with me, if I am honest, but you have got to stay focused on the future.
“As a golf person, it’s incredibly sad. We had the Martini International back in the ’70s, which was a European Tour event. There is an incredible amount of history here and it is a cracking golf course.”
Without the move, though, Royal Norwich’s future was dark.
Hemmed in by the ever-expanding city and burdened by a clubhouse that’s quaint but unsuited to any activity that assists getting money into tills, the club had a simple choice – move or suffer.
The idea to relocate wasn’t new, either. It had been on the cards since the late 1980s. But talking and doing are different things.
And when the time came to make the decision, it was sensitive and it was emotional.
It’s hard to leave a chunk of your life behind, as head professional and director of golf Neil Lythgoe – who has spent a quarter of a century walking these fairways – knows only too well.
“I love the club. It has become a part of me in a way. I love a lot of the people up there – they are great to be around.
“I’ve played hundreds of rounds down the years, particularly those when I was playing full-time. Then there would hardly be a day that passed when I didn’t play here.”
When Lythgoe first arrived at Royal Norwich as an assistant, he had to be made an honorary member because club staff weren’t allowed in the bar upstairs.
It was shirt and jacket every night and ladies couldn’t play on weekends. The club has changed beyond all recognition since then and the biggest is yet to come.
“The only thing I can relate it to is that years ago my old boss Gary Potter left.
“I’d been his assistant for three years and he went and got a new job. I remember that day vividly in my head – he was going and he cleared all the shop out and it was just a shell.
“I really did feel strange. It was like an end of an era and that was only after three-and-a-half years. After 25 years, I think it is going to be similar but magnified by quite a big margin.
“But I really do feel like I am looking forward to a change of scenery and I think it is going to be fantastic for the club.”
Was it that I’d probably never see it again, or was I simply taking in the surroundings?
Whatever it was, I played Royal Norwich with a freedom I only wish I could bottle for a monthly medal.
A wedge from 75 yards to six inches and it was another birdie on the 10th. As I paced slowly through the tight wooded parkland, the smile grew ever wider.
“I’ve got two acres at home, and 175 acres here,” said my playing partner, known throughout the club as Mel the pro.
In many ways, he’s Mr Royal Norwich. It is a part of his very soul.
When he’s not sorting out his transition, or fixing my errant drives, he’s sharing stories about John Hudson hitting consecutive holes-in-one on the 12th and 13th in 1971, or the times he’s come to grief on the splendid 6th hole with its green that sits at the top of a slope.
Even he’s getting goosebumps about the move. You can’t halt progress but what you can do is take the chance to experience Royal Norwich at its finest – before it’s gone forever.
“These last two years are going to be the best two they could possibly be,” adds Grice. “We have invested back into the clubhouse and we have invested a huge amount into the course.
“It is a unique opportunity if people haven’t been here for a while. It’s in the best condition it’s ever been and people shouldn’t miss it.”
Royal Norwich’s new home
Royal Norwich’s new course will open for play in late summer next year at Weston Longville.
Designed by European Golf Design’s Ross McMurray, who was behind the Twenty Ten course at Celtic Manor, and constructed by MJ Abbott, the club will benefit from modern irrigation systems and a massive reservoir within a mature setting that is home to trees that are hundreds of years old.
The clubhouse will be a mix of old and new, combining aspects of the former Weston Park club with modern glass fronted rooms and conferencing facilities.
Find out more about Royal Norwich by visiting the club’s website.